Unionist Jeannie Rea prepares to go back to the classroom

Jeannie Rea was one of the lucky ones, one of the generation offered a free university education, along with a living allowance, courtesy of reforms introduced by the pioneering and polarising prime minister Gough Whitlam.

The president of the National Tertiary Education Union for the past eight years and soon to return to teaching at a university, Rea ­enjoyed the small ­tutorials during her time as a student at Monash University. She appreciated the time lecturers and tutors had to talk to individual students, the vib­rancy of campus life, the sheer joy of absorbing knowledge.

“What has changed is the whole idea that the time you have at university is a special and privileged time,” she says. “I think that’s become really difficult. The sheer size of universities these days, and the huge pressure to fill every room and fill every moment and get the students through as quickly and cheaply as possible, has just changed it. The pleasures of learning have been diminished in that environment.”

Rea’s daughter also went to Monash. Rea’s partner, her daughter’s father, works in a university on the general staff, and both parents are ­extremely committed to education in general, ­encouraging their daughter and her friends to go to university, even though the financial outlay was considerable.

They believed “education to be a good thing in itself, and increasingly the requirement for the jobs we need to get”.

Two generations at one university have made for an easy comparison, and an understanding of how much things have changed across the decades. Rea’s daughter has told her of a queue of 40 students waiting to talk to a harassed tutor, who she thought was probably working on a casual basis and not being paid to interact with questioning students.

Yet the tutors usually remain at their posts, working without pay, because they feel a responsibility to their students and often to the institution itself, Rea says. “The universities know they’re doing it; it’s basically free labour.”

This pressure from above to get more done faster, and preferably by a casually employed employee, has left its mark on students, she says. If students understand a casually employed tutor has been told to mark X thousand words in 20 minutes, they begin to wonder why they should put any time into perfecting and polishing their ­essays or other work when it only will be glanced at by a tutor with an eye on the clock.

“I think lots of students feel they’re not getting the attention they should, but also feeling bad for the tutors putting in all this time they’re not getting paid for,” Rea says, adding that this experience teaches students to have low expectations of their future lives in the workforce. They see highly qualified tutors working hard and rapidly, and earning little, she says, and it paints a less than rosy picture of life as a graduate.

In her experience, university staff will generally keep working above and beyond what they’re paid for, which she says is particularly obnoxious if they are paid ­casually or on a short-term contract. “That’s one of the reasons we talk about the vice-chancellors’ salaries (more than $1 million ­annually in certain cases). In some ways it symbolises the gap now between the people who are making the university work and what’s going on at the top.”

She says she does not believe universities can achieve their ambitions in terms of quality teaching and ­research while they continue to employ people casually and on short-term contracts: “It jeopardises everything else now, and I hope that is being understood at the management level.”

Universities have been forced into this position, Rea explains, because they are more or less permanently cash-strapped: the base funding per student has been ­inadequate since cuts made in the years of the Howard government, and continued and sometimes ­increased by successive governments, both Labor and Coalition.

While Australian universities do make a great deal of money from the tuition fees paid by ­international students, these funds are needed to subsidise the courses taken by domestic students, she says.

Rea has had a lot of experience in higher education, both teaching and in the union movement. She first moved into the sector 25 years ago, around the time the NTEU was forming, an amalgamation of three general staff unions and two academic unions, and before that she was a TAFE teacher and active in the relevant union.

“I came from a background where you were told when you started a job, you joined the union,” she says, laughing. “The next step is you get involved. That was really my progression.”

Her first union, the tech teachers’ union in Victoria, then merged — in the big union ­mergers of the time — into the Australian Education Union.

Rea got a job as an academic, teaching gender studies at Vic­toria University, and became ­involved in the local branch of the NTEU, becoming president of the Victorian division of the union, then moving on to the national executive and finally becoming national president of the union eight years ago.

“To Victoria University’s credit, they gave me leave without pay to take the full-time national presidency job,” she says, adding that she is scheduled to return to the university to begin work again next month. “At present we’re discussing what there is for me to do at the university because much has changed, in my university and across the system, in the time I’ve been out.”

Rea is interested in Victoria University’s experiments with block teaching — in which students are taught one unit at a time in small classes, each unit for a four-week block. The university says the paradigm shift to block teaching has improved student grades and retention rates.

“I think we’re at a stage where we have to try some different ways of delivering and offering education. I’m also constantly concerned that the decisions are made looking at the budget first and the pedagogy second. In that environment, the constant pressure to try to do it on the cheap means some of the pedagogical values and objects are then lost in that. ‘How can we do it cheaper?’ rather than ‘how can we do it better?’ — that’s a huge tension.”

These pressures around university funding have informed much of Rea’s professional life in her years as NTEU national president. The union negotiates enterprise agree­ments with univer­sities, which last three to four years, and the periods of negotiation can vary considerably in length of time and ease of agreement.

Sometimes it can, and does, ­become quite antagonistic. The university is generally looking to keep its budget in trim and to avoid making concessions on wages and other matters, usually pushing for less staff involvement in decision-making, and especially less union-led staff ­involvement, Rea says.

Yet at the same time, both the university and the union, in the end, want to make it work and want to see an institution that can and does function as well as it possibly can.

“Universities are not corporations,” Rea says. “They need to ­remember they are universities, and universities do have a particular role in society — and it’s an ­important one.”